The Little Years: magical, dark comedy about limited female roles

little years
Colleen MacIsaac as the thwarted scientist Kate is framed by, left, Christine Daniels as Grace and Mauralea Austin as Alice in Matchstick Theatre’s production of John Mighton’s The Little Years, on Oct. 13 and 14, 2 and 8 p.m., at the Bus Stop Theatre. (Samm Fisher)
Given the idea — or hope —  that young women today can do anything they want with their lives, John Mighton’s The Little Years is a throwback to a time when women’s roles were very limited.

The 1995 Canadian play, staged by Halifax’s Matchstick Theatre at the Bus Stop Theatre just through Sunday, is a sad, bitterly comic, occasionally magical story of an oddball teenager in the 1950s whose passion for physics is thwarted by her society, her school and her mother.

When she is steered away from science to stenography, a huge sigh is felt within the audience, for it knows nothing good can come of that.

The young Kate, in a glittering, exuberant performance by Kayla Gunn, evolves into the older Kate, an embittered, socially-hostile, spiritually-crushed woman in drab clothing who can’t hold a job and ends up briefly in a mental institution, forever crimped by her celebrity-poet brother.

Colleen MacIsaac brings a Sheldon Cooper-esque quality to this part as well as a real pathos. She suggests the glimmer of a candle within this frozen creature.  And in the end Kate sees she has a legacy.

Mighton, a mathematician as well as a playwright, wrote The Little Years as a plea to make sure kids reach their educational potential. The founder of the JUMP Math (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies) program, he was asked by the Stratford Festival to expand his play in 2011.

Mighton pencilled in some of the side characters who revolve around Kate, which adds to the humour, though each character also faces disappointment as the years pass.

There is the lionized artist Roger (Matthew Lumley), the caring, environmentalist sister-in-law (Christine Daniels) and the loving but cutting mother Alice, in a wonderful, nuanced, sensitive and comically rich performance by Mauralea Austin.  (Also on stage in smaller roles are Amanda Mullally, Sean Skerry and Sam Vigneault.

Kate is fascinated by the nature of time and wonders if it is cyclical instead of linear, a concept that Mighton carries out beautifully in his structure and that is amplified in the direction.

This production, directed by Matchstick’s artistic director Jake Planinc, has a magical quality with a beautiful set piece of hanging disco balls like planets around the sun, lit in colourful flares by lighting designer Alison Crosby. (Other designers are Wes Babcock, set; Jordan Palmer, sound, and Kelsey Stanger, costumes, with a great hole-riddled sweater for Kate.

With its filmic writing, The Little Years needs a faster pace with quicker set changes. This production also suffers a bit from unevenness in acting levels but overall it’s well  worth seeing.

The Little Years runs 90 minutes including a 10- minute intermission today and Sunday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $20 online (https://matchsticktheatre.ca/tickets/)

Matchstick is an emerging company founded in early 2017 to “revitalize” contemporary Canadian plays. Next up is Michael Melski’s Joyride Jan. 23 to 27 at the Scotiabank Theatre as part of Neptune Theatre’s Open Spaces program.

It’s interesting to reflect that Mighton covers in time the 1950s to the 70s to the 2000s, not little years at all, but years that have caused great damage to the world, in which increasingly scientists of both genders have not been supported or listened to, and in which women have not achieved equal power.

 

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